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Shabbat Parashat Vayishlach 5776

Ein Ayah: The Place of Humor in the Study of Torah

(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 2:103)

Gemara: [We have been discussing Rabba’s practice of saying something humorous before starting a Torah lecture.] 


Ein Ayah: To understand the place of humor one has to picture the pleasure that accompanies intellectual attainment in terms of the pleasure one gets when fulfilling other physical needs. The pleasure does not replace the purpose of the actions, but it is a related outcome that contributes to a person’s likelihood of following the path of healthy natural life.

One can have enjoyment in the intellectual realm even when contemplating intellectual ideas that have not passed the test of truth and practical value, even though goal-oriented intellectualism requires those qualifications. We can say, metaphorically, that there is room in the realm of wisdom for attractive flowers that are not for reproductive purposes. Their (referring to various forms of humor) value is in making one’s heart happy with their crispness and pleasant style.

Because these ideas are not of real intellectual value, they can be harmful if used by one who does not understand their place but sees them as “nourishment” for the intellect, when they are actually only pleasant aesthetics. If one knows humor’s time and place, he will take them for what they are and not try to expand upon them. He will use them as generating a little bit of happiness and serving as an indicator of the greater happiness one will have if he is able to perceive real intellectual truths. It is easier to enjoy things into which he does not need to delve deeply to reach their goal.

This general phenomenon can also be found in the extreme examples of the pilpul system of learning [which is not always realistically based on Torah truths] that has been employed in recent generations and apparently since much earlier periods of history. These serve as “flowers” and “spices” to present a “resting place” in the sources for the “aesthetic side” of Torah intellect. This is parallel to the embellishment of logical content by employing along with it various artistic, literary, and poetic tools. The Rabbis viewed that just as flowers are appropriate for fruit trees, so too aesthetic flourishes are fitting for the wisdom of Torah, even of Torah giants who are pillars of our nation. That is why the Rabbis say (Eiruvin 13b) that one is not accepted into Sanhedrin unless he can explain in 150 ways why a sheretz (an impure animal) is pure (i.e., he has great intellectual ingenuity, which is of value even if the ingenuity produces false conclusions – as long as he realizes they are false).

As time passes and happiness has been lost due to our moral flaws, many are unable to understand the importance of using intellectual aesthetics. Unfortunately, they do not recognize the point of using images unless they can fit into scientifically accurate measures that justify their use in practical rulings. There are also people who are guilty of the opposite problem. Instead of using tools such as humor to a limited degree, e.g., as introducing a lecture with them to make the heart happy, they view this type of thought process as the essence of the learning process. In such a case, they are missing the heart of true learning, and the external tool which now serves nothing of value turns out to contribute nothing.

Rabba kept things in perspective and taught us that the humor should be limited to an introductory role, followed by a very serious atmosphere for the learning itself. This distinguishes between that which is pleasant and that which is of intrinsic value. The supporting role that humor plays is fitting for a nation whose Torah, which includes all that is desirable, is its life and purpose. We are able to appreciate delving into the understanding of the depths of Hashem’s sweet Torah and also enjoy its “flowers.” “Those who are planted in the house of Hashem will flower in the courtyards of our G-d” (Tehillim 92:14).
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